Getting everyone to the table?

Well, hello! Allow me to explain (again): I am not a great blogger. I write one post, pat myself on the back, and move on to other projects (I’m finally getting around to The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander — less a few style choices, it is a staggering read). I don’t see this behavior improving, especially now that graduate admissions season is well underway. I’m overjoyed to report that I have offers of admission from a few sociology PhD programs, including the University of Pennsylvania, which was my top choice. I am proud of the work I’ve done to arrive at this point, and feeling grateful to have been supported in this endeavor by my loving family, my steadfast friends, and an unusually devoted group of undergraduate professors. All that said, I hope you will continue to endure my tortoise-like blogging pace.

High Falls,  warming up at a balmy 30 degrees!

High Falls, warming up at a balmy 30 degrees!

Last week, I met with Laura Delehanty to discuss a financial aid literacy workshop that I’m putting together for the city schools. While we were chatting, she told me that the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester had just held a presidential symposium entitled, “Revitalizing K-12 Education in Rochester.” I wasn’t there, since our organization wasn’t invited, but I have thoughts. Or, rather, I have Thoughts.

Based on the press release, the symposium was well-attended. The plenary speaker for the event was our newly-elected mayor, Lovely A. Warren, and opening remarks were given by the president of the University and the dean of the Warner School. The RCSD superintendent, Bolgen Vargas, gave a presentation. Featured speakers included the principal of a local charter school, the chief operating officer of Uncommon Schools, the inspiring Caterina Leone-Mannino, director of extended learning and intervention at RCSD, and the president of Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection. Notably absent from the presidential symposium on K-12 education in Rochester? Teachers.

The closed nature of supposedly-collaborative events is a frustrating obstacle to progress in Rochester. At any given symposium, summit, or panel discussion, the same organizations and the same agendas are present. Very rarely are teachers or school administrators involved; the only representation from the district comes from the Kafkaesque Central Office, a massive support staff whose roles range from data analysis to extended-day coordination. The result, to which I’ve alluded in earlier posts, is a repetitive and unproductive conversation about education among people who spend little time in schools.

I would venture to guess that, if the floor was opened up to exemplary teachers, and perhaps students, we may get a clearer picture of what is needed on the ground. It is one thing to know and understand the absymal graduation rate, and quite another to learn that, at some RCSD schools, students may spend weeks in “in-school suspension,” thanks to punitive zero-tolerance policies. That type of information is hugely important in making practical policy changes, and we can only learn it by listening to teachers, substitutes, and support staff who work with students on a day-to-day basis.

So, let’s say RCSD teachers had been invited to the Warner School symposium (for the record, Laura was invited, but only as an alumna of the school); would they have attended? Considering that the event was scheduled at 8 AM on a Tuesday, it seems unlikely. While it is very easy for a program assistant at a nonprofit CBO (like me) to take off the morning for an event, teachers cannot leave school because — stay with me — they have to teach. Simply put, teachers are too busy doing their jobs to take part in the circular, self-aggrandizing calls to action that characterize events like the Warner School’s.

I think this problem is endemic to education systems. Fundamentally, due to the different requirements of their “day jobs,” teachers and the organizations that work to support schools have a hard time coordinating. My organization oversees the Rochester College Access Network, and it was a considerable effort to arrange it so that high school counselors could attend the group’s meetings, to say nothing of trying to get a free hour out of a teacher. Further, these conversations so often take place on the timetable and turf of institutions like the University of Rochester. The only people who can attend those events are those that are already embedded in that style of life, limiting cross-occupational discussion and further stratifying opinions on how to move our schools forward. It may be possible to have genuine community-wide participation in education reform, but someone is going to have to oversee a really massive Doodle poll, and I’m not about to volunteer for that job.


“College culture”

I’ve been in a blog rut. My weeks have been flying by in a haze of graduate applications and ever-lengthening shifts at my retail job, and I haven’t had any time to dig up anything interesting for the blog. I contemplated a long-winded rant about the admissions employee at Rutgers who promised me a fee waiver two months ago, only to hear yesterday from the same employee that such a waiver did not exist and that reviewing my application would be delayed since my payment was now late, but who wants to hear about that? Not her, I’ll tell you that much.

AND THEN — inspiration struck during a meeting of the Rochester College Access Network this morning. We were discussing College Goal Sunday, a national initiative for communities to host college access events on the Sunday following the Super Bowl. Rochester’s College Goal Sunday event at East High will be a FAFSA completion workshop, facilitated by volunteers from the community and local college financial aid departments. Students and their families from the Rochester area are welcome to attend and get their FAFSA forms completed and handed in. From my perspective, this event is a wonderful response to the challenge that many families have with getting their financial aid in order, and even better, it’s free and open to anyone who walks in. (What the heck is FAFSA?)

While I think College Goal Sunday addresses an important gap in programming, one of the group members made an excellent point about its major shortcoming: College Goal Sunday is happening on a Sunday. Besides the fact that most religious denominations have service on Sundays, many black and Latina/o communities reserve Sunday as a day of rest and family time. Sunday, for many, is sacrosanct, and there are likely hundreds of students in Rochester who will not attend College Goal Sunday for that reason. The term “college-going culture” is thrown around often in the non-profit education world, but whose culture are we promoting? When an organization or individual says they hope to establish a college-going culture, they mean that they want college to become a part of the life process for low-income communities, as it is in many affluent communities. Unfortunately, social science research (combined with recent state rankings) indicate that this isn’t how culture works at all.

First, individuals tend to make choices based on the patterns of action they see in their surroundings, not based on values (see Ann Swidler’s “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies”). Community-based organizations and philanthropists may tout the benefits of a college education from dawn to dusk, but the patterns of action held by a community will always be more powerful than the objective value of a new way of doing things. Second, things tend to go poorly when one culture attempts to rehabilitate another. There are plenty of examples of this, but my favorite is Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa.

None of this is to say that the situation in Rochester is impossible to be salvaged, nor that non-profits and CBOs have no place in education policy. Rather, major cultural differences are being swept under the rug in the crusade for equal education attainment. It is not acceptable for a city of our size to hold one (and only one) community-wide FAFSA completion event on a Sunday, and it is not acceptable for charitable organizations to demand a change of Rochester’s culture. The entire concept of establishing a college-going culture assumes that something is being set up where there is nothing, which degrades the rich culture that already exists in Rochester and other, similar cities. If the quality of life in Rochester is to improve, its culture must be empowered. Otherwise, policy makers run the risk of preaching to the choir, and wondering why nothing is changing.

P.S. A few organizations in Rochester offer FAFSA help to families, including Urban League of Rochester, Monroe Community College, and Bryant and Stratton College. Some RCSD counselors have also scheduled FAFSA completion events for the students at their school. However, College Goal Sunday is a much larger and (barely) more publicized event.

FAFSA visualization

Okay, the last post was pretty intense. I know. And no pictures, either! What sort of monster am I?

My supervisors at REF have been very impressed with my ability to make graphs in Microsoft Excel (thanks, college), so I’ve thrown a few together to illustrate rates of FAFSA completion within RCSD schools, and among school districts in Monroe County. The FAFSA is a free form provided by the U.S. government that acts as a calculator of financial need for college-going students. Students are not eligible for financial aid until they complete this form, so this is a crucial step in the college process, and a strong determinant of whether a student will be able to pay for their education. The FAFSA data are provided by the U.S. Department of Education, and the number of students comes from data from the New York State Education Department.

A note on methodology: The FAFSA numbers are for the 2011-2012 academic year, meaning that these forms were completed by students who were graduating high school in 2011 and entering their first year of college. The student numbers are seniors from the class of 2011. I decided to present the number of enrolled seniors, and not the number of graduating students, to account for any students who may have completed the FAFSA but were unable to graduate, since we are here examining the degree to which a school environment yields FAFSA completion. Also, many RCSD schools on the first graph no longer exist, due to district restructuring. Go figure.

Lastly, I am terribly sorry for the condition of these images. Microsoft PowerPoint had no interest in helping make this look presentable. Click on the graphs to read them. I’m happy to provide data tables, as well.



What shall we make of these numbers?

Does a rising tide raise all ships?

Two days ago, the Democrat and Chronicle published a web essay by Laura Delehanty. I may as well just shut down the blog, because the piece is a more concise version of what I’ve been trying to say here. I should add that, when I met Laura, she told me she was “just a teacher.” I was, and am, amazed at what one teacher can do for her students and her community.

Last week, I went to a conference on improving Rochester’s graduation rate and the education outcomes of our city students. (I’m being intentionally vague because I didn’t love it.) What I did love was hearing a diversity of opinions about what can be done to improve Rochester’s education culture. At one point during the conference, people were asked to share their ideas over lunch. One community representative expressed hope that Rochester education leaders would partner with charter schools, and allow the charter system to be “a rising tide that raises all ships.” This metaphor puzzled me for a few days. The image of a rising tide, of floating ships, is powerful and enticing, especially when applied to education. But what does it really mean?

Before I jump into this, it might be useful to define what a charter school is. Charter schools are public institutions funded by local, state, and federal taxes. It does not cost anything to attend them, and families may choose to send their children. They are generally not affiliated with school districts. Rochester has a couple, but they are open to any student in the area. The teachers they employ are not held to state standards (not to say that they aren’t qualified, just that they don’t have the same training curriculum — many charter schools recruit teachers with a liberal arts background). Basically, in exchange for greater freedom of structure, charter schools promise the state that they will provide sterling education according to state and federal guidelines (this promise is the titular “charter”).

Okay, back to those rising ships. The assumption with this metaphor seems to be that, within the ecosystem of a community, educational improvement on any level will yield improvement for everyone. While I think it’s fair to say that a well-run charter school in Rochester could improve the city’s state rankings, I don’t think we can assume that the rest of the RCSD schools will benefit. However, charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon in Rochester, so I don’t think I can say anything conclusively about how they would behave here. For the time being, charter schools are “empty vessels” (Black, Charter Schools, Vouchers, and the Public Good). We don’t even know if charter schools are guaranteed to deliver a better education, so we can’t say for sure whether they will act as this rising tide.

And yet, something about the charter school system irks me. The American education system was designed to be a free schooling system that would educate and civilize every child. As I discussed in an earlier post, the egalitarian setup of our system doesn’t always shake out, but this is largely a function of our unequal society. Since our nation is so dependent upon the tenets and inner-workings of capitalism, our education system will only be as fair as the invisible hand allows. This, in part, explains the suburban exodus: for the families who can afford to move, there is a better education waiting outside of the city. So, in a way, charter schools address this imbalance by attempting to install high-achieving within cities like Rochester, giving city families a chance to choose something different. My fear is that a push toward charter schools will only amount to a push away from city schools. If our community directs its attention away from the suffering city schools, they will continue to decline, and there simply isn’t enough room for all of Rochester’s children at a charter school.

The American pattern of addressing the symptom and not the cause is encroaching on our city schools. We can’t abandon our crippled schools, and we can’t put them on life support while we try to make charter schools work. I think charter schools are the wrong answer to the right question. What do you think?


After a brief getting-my-life-together hiatus, I have returned to the blog. Nothing serious, really, just getting into the swing of things with a new part-time job and getting some effective work done on my graduate applications. I don’t meant to brag, but I’ve been reviewing a lot of high school math for the GRE, which I am taking on Tuesday. I think I’m ready, but I’ve still yet to review computation and permutation problems (out of a perfectly reasonable fear of equations that include !s) and I just know one is going to show up. I think I’ll bite the bullet and get into those tonight.

Speaking of testing, many of you reading this have probably seen Buffalo Business First’s 2013 rankings of Upstate New York school districts. You haven’t? Here it is. Now, from what I can tell, Buffalo Business First is a small-time business journal, and this is a ranking they have pulled together from state testing data (if anyone knows more about this ranking, please let me know), which is just to say that we don’t know precisely how they settled on this ranking. However, its results are fairly consistent with what you might expect.

I’m very proud to say that my dad and stepmother work for the highest-performing district in Upstate New York, and that my sisters are getting a first-rate education. I’m sad to say that Rochester is the lowest-performing district, out of four hundred and twenty-nine schools. To put it differently, I drive twenty minutes every day from the jurisdiction of the best school in the state to that of the worst school in the state. It is not a coincidence that the list ends with Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester, although it does feel uncanny. What do we make of this gross disparity? What does this tell us about our cities? The issue becomes (if possible) even more bleak when you consider that the most populous cities in Upstate New York are, in order, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. Most of UNY’s children are in the districts that are performing the worst on state tests.

I would like to conjecture that state testing is choking our inner-city schools. Allow me to make an imperfect analogy: imagine that two kids are asked to build a lego tower. One kid, we’ll call her A, has twice as many blocks as the other kid, B. (The manner of acquiring legos is complicated, you can’t just buy more. Did I already mention how imperfect this is?) The challenge is to build a tower that is one foot tall. A easily builds the tower, with a bunch of legos left over. B, having half the number of legos, is a few blocks shy of the goal. The logic of state testing dictates that when schools fall short of the goal, the goal needs to be made more difficult in order expose and solve the problem — as if educational attainment comes about by sheer force of will. When the goal is made more difficult, our struggling schools will continue to fall behind (and they will lose hours upon hours of curriculum and enrichment time trying to teach their students how to take a test that neither party is equipped to take). Is it reasonable to raise the bar on testing, across the board, when half of our state is not playing with a full deck? Resources matter. Without them, school districts fail, which is exactly what we’re seeing in our biggest cities. The state is asking Rochester to build a tower of educational success, but we’ve already used up so much of our legos on things like free hot lunches for 100% of our students. The logic of state testing frustrates me, and I get annoyed when people suggest that somehow individual teachers should be able to make up the difference. Again, as if they just aren’t trying hard enough. Expect guest posts by my AmeriCorps peers in the schools in the near future, to give a first-hand account of the rewards and challenges of working at RCSD schools.

At the REF partnership dinner last week, a wonderful and celebratory event, East High teacher Laura Delehanty gave an incredibly inspiring speech. She and her husband send their children to RCSD. She said, “If the Rochester city schools aren’t good enough for my children, they aren’t good enough for anyone’s children.” I admire her strength of character and her many accomplishments at East, but I imagine it’s not easy to be both so close and so far from educational excellence like that maintained by the Pittsford community. It is my opinion that New York State testing is ultimately prohibitive to all school districts (perhaps I’ll get my family members in education to comment on this), but our city school districts are clearly hit the hardest, making lists like these even more frustrating. Quite literally, the system is keeping our kids down.

Los Graduados

Last night, I saw a wonderful documentary at the Little Theatre with some AmeriCorps members. It was personally inspiring, and even made me tear up a bit, and at the end I thought, “Wow, there’s so much in here worth talking about. I wish there was a way for me to share this with other people!” Then I realized, oh yeah, that’s exactly why I started a blog. Anyway.


The Graduates/Los Graduados is a two-part, bilingual documentary that tells the story of six Latino and Latina students in America. The film zeroes in on some of the hardships particular to Latino students, and on other issues that any student could relate to. Ultimately, the film is a testament to the proven, therapeutic power of one individual reaching out to another, and a poignant reminder that access to public education does not put everyone on an equal footing to join the workforce or seek higher education. Check out the trailer, and grab a sweater, because you’re about to have goosebumps.


The first part airs on PBS on October 28, and the second airs on November 4, at 10 PM.  I would highly recommend watching it any way you can. Even if you aren’t involved with education, it’s something everyone in the voting populace should be aware of, now that the American Latino population is a growing constituency of our nation and our schools.

I’ll leave you with a little sociological problem. There was a discussion among members of the community last night after the showing, and a Latina professor from University of Rochester’s Warner School was there sharing insights from a recent study on the school experiences of Latina/o students in Rochester. She brought up structural factors that block Latina/o success in schools, referring to programs  and processes built into our public school system that, for the most part, enable it it to function smoothly (but in this case are problematic). One structure that she viewed as troubling was the language requirement. She pointed out that Latina/o students often enter American schools unable to speak English, while native students are required take at least four years of a language. For her, this is an issue of making English language programs more available so Latina/o students aren’t struggling to understand. While I think this is an admirable goal, I’d also go so far as to say that this is not merely a structural issue but a cultural one, too. I was sitting in the theater, feeling baffled by the idea that native students are urged to take Spanish as a marketable skill, while Latina/o students who already possess this skill are implicitly told that they must fall in line with the white students. Our American students are being asked to approximate an element of Latina/o culture while our Latina/o students are being asked to assimilate, to downplay their identity. Speaking Spanish is only an asset if you speak English first; otherwise, it’s a liability. Our schools are necessarily predicated on American culture, and while that doesn’t need to be a bad thing, it seems to punish students from other ethnic groups and send conflicting messages about what it means to have language skills. Your thoughts?

– Chelsea

Falling in(to data!)

Greetings, and happy fall! I don’t know about the rest of you, but fall is my favorite season, and I’m lucky to be spending it in such a beautiful place. I snapped this shot of the Kodak building on my lunch break today – for some reason, these clouds strike me as distinctly fall clouds.

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In any case, I’m settling in at my AmeriCorps placement, the Rochester Education Foundation (REF). I work with a very small team on various efforts, including donating books to the RCSD, supporting high school career readiness, and working on strengthening a Rochester College Access Network. The latter project is to be my focus, and word around the water cooler is that I’ll be working on a college access manual for RCSD high school students. As with many urban school districts, Rochester’s college attendance rate is relatively low, but its attrition rate is worse. A recent REF report discusses the main challenges facing RCSD students in getting into college, and it’s likely that those same factors make it hard to students to stay there. College attrition is something I’d like to learn more about (for example, how do factors like individual race and class affect college attrition?) so hopefully I’ll get to explore that here.

To understand where our kids are coming from, it’s important to look at some data on life in Rochester. On my first day on the job, I found ACT Rochester, an incredible resource from the Rochester Area Community Foundation. Their “About Us” section says it all:

ACT Rochester’s purpose is to change the culture of community problem-solving and associated decision making through the use of credible, independent and timely data. … The website creates a “one stop shop” for data and analysis, over 100 indicators, as well as links to more than 300 community initiatives and resources.

Cool, right? For each of its “indicators” (things like “unemployment rate” or “tourism spending”) there is an interactive bar graph that compares data from Rochester, Monroe County, surrounding counties, and New York State as a whole. (Regrettably, not all the graphs display an option to look at Rochester data, so you sometimes have to make do with Monroe County, which is not making do at all since whatever relevant information there might be about the city itself is completely obscured by the economically-advantaged suburbs.)

But enough of my whining. Here are a few bar graphs that I found particularly illustrative of life in young Rochester. I’ve pasted a non-interactive image, just to liven up the post, but I highly recommend clicking the link and tinkering with the options. Simply click on one of the counties listed below the graph to see how other places match up (or, more likely, don’t match up) with Rochester.

Rate of Teen Pregnancy


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Violent Crimes 

chart (1)

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Infant Mortality Rate – one of the highest in the country, I’ve been told.

chart (2)

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Reports of Domestic Violence

chart (3)

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Student Performance on Grade 3 English, by Race/Ethnicity – one of the strongest indicators of high school graduation. Note that each racial/ethnic group performs relatively parallel to their location, with the exception of white students in Monroe county.  Unlike their black, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts, white students in Monroe county perform well above the surrounding counties and above the state level. The fact that white and Asian students in Monroe county are far out-pacing their counterparts in Rochester, compared to the small margin by which black students in Monroe county surpass their suburban counterparts, points to a racially structured suburban advantage.

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These charts help us to understand a bit more about the environment in which the RCSD is trying to educate its students. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I suspect it’s the only place to start from when trying to make real gains in improving educational outcomes. For a more national perspective, here is an elegant graphic from the Lumina Foundation, illustrating higher education by state. It’s a seriously beautiful visualizer; click around to get a sense of which states have the highest percentage of people holding advanced degrees.

I get dizzy just thinking about this stuff. DATA ARE SO COOL. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section. Until next time,